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Parker Kligerman makes Daytona 500 with timely help from Kyle Busch

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Parker Kligerman was out of the Daytona 500 … until Kyle Busch was out of the draft.

It was a fortuitous turn of events for the driver turned TV analyst who “literally thought I’d never drive a Cup car again” but now will drive in the biggest race of his life.

With critical help from Busch, who had fallen a lap down and deep in the pack because of a midrace spin, Kligerman finished 12th in Thursday’s first qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway and made The Great American Race for the second time in his NASCAR career. He will start 25th alongside Kyle Larson.

“It kind of feels like it’s finally all starting to work,” said Kligerman, who took a four-year break from the Cup Series from 2014-18 while working for NBC Sports Group as an analyst and pit reporter while continuing to race part-time in the Truck Series. “Like after many years of doing this, people are starting to take notice.  I’m getting the opportunities.

“When I won the Talladega truck race two years ago, I had like 550, 560 texts.  I have 530 texts right now just from making the 500.  It is a big race, apparently. Biggest race in the world.”

Kligerman, 27, finished just ahead of Tyler Reddick and Ryan Truex, the two drivers he needed to beat to put Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota in the field for Sunday’s 61st Daytona 500.

Parker Kligerman speaks Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kligerman’s hopes seemed dashed when Reddick moved ahead of him with 14 laps to go, but his seemingly futile pursuit suddenly took flight when Busch’s No. 18 Toyota plummeted into range with four laps remaining. After their spotters began communicating, Kligerman and Busch hooked up and rocketed past Reddick.

“From there, it was a blockfest,” Kligerman said of holding off Reddick and Truex. ”I never blocked so hard in my entire life. Swerving down the backstretch just to hold them off. And we’re in the Daytona 500.”

He can thank Busch, whose NASCAR team fielded Kligerman full time in the Xfinity Series for the 2013 season – helping propel Kligerman into Cup for a short-lived ride in ’14. Busch and Kligerman have remained on good terms since then, and though sharing a manufacturer helped (“We don’t have a lot of cars in this race, so the more Toyotas, the better.”), so did their friendship.

“I’ve had a great relationship with him for a long time, since I drove for him,” Kligerman said. “He’s always been someone that I needed some advice or just wanted to reach out for a question, I could reach out to him. He’s done the same with me a lot of times about the truck series.

“It’s a mutual respect. I’m very glad I’ve made that relationship for this exact reason right here. Because he’s the reason we got in the Daytona 500.”

The Westport, Connecticut, native can take some credit. He returned to Cup last year with four starts for Gaunt Brothers  (starting at the Coca-Cola 600) and posted two top 25s for the fledgling team, which earned him another shot for Speedweeks 2019 and starts the next two weeks at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Owner Marty Gaunt is hoping to run a dozen races this season, and Kligerman hopes to figure into more.

“I know he has grand ambitions for the future for this race team,” he said. “I hope to be in those discussions.  Right now, we’re taking it step by step, being methodical about it, being smart.  He wants to be here for a long time. I really, really hope this all works out because he’s a good guy and good owner to have in this sport and we need more like him.”

For now, though, Kligerman is happy to focus on the short-term satisfaction of being a Daytona 500 driver again.

“A year ago I watched (the Daytona 500),” he said. “I felt like I’d probably never get a chance to be in this race again. Fast forward a couple weeks ago, I’m doing pit reporting, doing the (Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona).  Now I’m sitting up here now talking to you guys as a guy that just made the Daytona 500.  It means the world to me.”

He had been disguising that since posting the 36th-fastest speed in qualifying, “putting on a cool face like I’m not worried at all.

“This is the most anxiety I’ve ever had in my entire life. The days leading up to this are literally some of the worst days of your life.  Then all of a sudden in the span of a split second when you cross that finish line, you’re in, the whole world becomes brighter and clearer, everything is better.”

It did come with one downer note: Truex, Kligerman’s good friend and social media foil, missed making his first Daytona 500 start.

“It is a little bittersweet knowing,” Kligerman said. “He’s a good friend of mine. He’s one of the most underrated drivers in the sport. I told him before the race I never wanted to be in this position, but here we are.

“We’re in the Daytona 500.”

Ryan: What we learned about the 2020 schedule, Drivers Council and dirt racing on Daytona 500 Media Day

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The moods were pleasant. The quotes were incisive. The topics were lively.

On the hypothetical Richter scale that monitors “How is NASCAR doing entering a pivotal 2019 season?”, Daytona 500 Media Day registers barely a tremor for its tenor and ultimate significance.

It’s intriguing to absorb the musings of every driver in the Cup Series on myriad subjects, but the reverberations are inherently limited.

The overarching storylines of Speedweeks 2019 will be determined by the quality of racing over the next four days – and after a lackluster Clash, there is a desperately gaping void in the action at Daytona International Speedway and many questions about whether the swan song for the restrictor-plate package can fill it.

Yet during seven hours of nonstop interviews in the Daytona 500 Club, NASCAR Nation still seemed in a good place Wednesday.

Before the green flag falls on tonight’s qualifying races, here are five takeaways from Daytona 500 Media Day.

–Schedule speculation: Aside from Clint Bowyer’s controversial hot take on the family dynamics of Disney World, one of Wednesday’s biggest social media firestorms emerged from Denny Hamlin’s pointed comments on whether NASCAR should consider shorter races.

Hamlin is one of many drivers willing to discuss it, which says that NASCAR likely is moving down that road as it hashes out the 2020 schedule that is expected to look much different than 2019.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps shed more light on it during a SiriusXM interview Wednesday morning, suggesting the ’21 schedule will have more impact as far as new tracks, but next year will bring some significant changes (namely, that the Daytona 500 might not open the season, which is probably why the proposed elimination of the Clash is being floated more publicly).

“We’re not going to make everyone happy, but we’re looking at what (fans) want,” Phelps said. “We’ve heard from the fans, ‘Hey it would be great to have more short tracks, more road courses.’ Those types of racetracks, they believe they’re seeing the best racing. When we look at ’21 and beyond, those are things we’re taking into consideration. I try to tease this a little bit, but I think we’ll have meaningful changes even in ’20 and then more meaningful changes in ’21.”

NASCAR is limited on switching up venues in ’20 because it marks the end of the five-year sanction agreements with all tracks on the Cup circuit. “So we are going to be running the same places,” Phelps said. “The question is, are we going to have them in the same order? When we start, when we finish the season. Those are all things we’re looking at.”

–A new car: The chatter is growing about the Gen 7 car in recent weeks with manufacturers and NASCAR confident of putting the new model on track by the 2021 season.

That timeline seems ambitious to Kyle Busch, who revealed why with another nugget: The Gen 7 might have an independent rear suspension, which is common to many motorsports series but would mark a radical departure for NASCAR. “That would be a complete overhaul of anything we’ve ever done in our sport,” Busch said. “I’m not sure where all that lands.”

Neither does Brad Keselowski, who has elected to refrain from getting involved even though it seems right up his alley. “It is going to require a lot of creative thinking,” the Team Penske driver said. “When it comes to those things, I can pie-in-the-sky dream about it all I want, but at the end of the day I don’t have the knobs. There is one group holding the controls and it is all up to them at the end of the day which way they want to twist and turn them. I made a concerted effort going forward that I am not going to put that much thought into that stuff and let them figure it out.”

–Is the Drivers Council dead? So if the outspoken Keselowski is pulling back on being opinionated, does that mean stars are willing to acquiesce to the whims of the new Jim France-Phelps regime?

Speedweeks usually marked the annual formation of the Drivers Council since its inception in 2015, but there was no confirmation Wednesday. Instead, there was uncertainty about the panel’s future that had begun last month.

Will the Drivers Council remain, or is it still even necessary?

Opinions were mostly ambivalent, but there seems a sentiment that it has outlived its usefulness. “We had the Drivers Council and we all wanted one thing and they did another,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think that’s probably where some of the frustration comes from. For me, it was the things we wanted to do never happened, and it was more out of frustration than anything.”

Much of this undoubtedly stems from a greater comfort with the leadership of Jim France, who has been a garage fixture since becoming CEO last August. After France met with series champions last fall, Kurt Busch said he was inspired to start a ticket giveaway to veterans this year.

“Jim has done a tremendous job of at least being around,” Kyle Busch said. “He’s always carrying a pen. He’s always carrying a notebook. He’s always taking notes. He’s always listening to people, talking to people. He’s down in the trenches.

“He’s figuring it all out and trying to make some moves for the betterment of the sport, and that’s what we all want. We want somebody involved. That’s into this as much as we’re all into this and care about all of this.”

–Things are cool with Kyle: He finished second in the 2017 Daytona 500, but Kyle Larson’s most memorable connection to The Great American Race might be when he said he’d rather win the Chili Bowl.

That viewpoint naturally didn’t sit well with some NASCAR officials (as well as some veteran drivers), who relayed their concerns through Chip Ganassi Racing PR rep Davis Shaefer (“They make Davis the bad guy,” Larson said with a chuckle.”).

But the message being sent now is that Larson’s moonlighting on dirt tracks a couple dozen times annually is approved – and actually encouraged. Phelps made the point again during the SiriusXM interview when asked about how young drivers help promote racing, noting that “there’s not a vehicle (Larson) doesn’t want to climb in and compete, and people love that about him.”

“I’m just glad (NASCAR officials) feel the same way, finally,” Larson said. “I don’t really feel like I felt that from them for a long time, so it’s nice that they support all the extra racing that I do now.

“Do I do it to help grow the sport or all that? I don’t really think about when I’m off at a dirt track or any of that, I’m not thinking about just trying to help motorsports, grow motorsports. I love motorsports. So that’s why I do it. But it is neat that I feel like I do make an impact just a little bit. And it’s not just me. There’s a lot of other guys – Christopher Bell, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, (Ricky) Stenhouse – they have their own teams. I feel like we all do a good job of cross promoting between sprint cars or dirt track racing in NASCAR.”

Just as with the news of their dissatisfaction, NASCAR officials didn’t directly convey the change in their stance. “I’ve never talked to them really about it,” he said. “I’ve just seen articles and heard stuff of what they’ve said. It’s neat that they support it now. Because I didn’t feel like I got the support before. I feel like I was always in trouble for anytime I talked about sprint car racing.”

It was hard to miss the message sent when Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell led a delegation of high-ranking competition officials to the 2019 Chili Bowl last month (there was no formal meeting with Larson there, either).

“That was really cool,” Larson said. “Because the Chili Bowl has gotten a lot of exposure the last handful of years, so for them to go there and just experience the event and maybe see why it’s growing and maybe there are some things that they can take from an event like that into NASCAR is cool. They’re just looking at all areas to try to make our sport back to what it used to be — NASCAR, anyway. I’m happy they are getting into it again.”

–Lingering Daytona bitterness: It’s no secret there are several big-name drivers who have yet to win the Daytona 500 (and always have been), starting with best-in-class plate driver Brad Keselowski.

And unsurprisingly, those champions remain irked by their near-misses.

For Keselowski, Daytona “is frustrating as hell … especially when you get wrecked out, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Twice last season at Daytona, the 2012 series champion was caught in wrecks near the front of the pack because of what he felt were “bad, juvenile moves” by others.

“It seems like there are a number of people that get into the top two or three that really just have no clue what they are doing,” he said. “That has been unfortunate, but it is what has been happening lately. … Just people that throw blocks that don’t understand the runs or what is around them. They don’t have full situational or spacial awareness, but they think they do, which is even more dangerous. You can block if you know what you are doing but not every move can be blocked. You have a handful of people that have cars good enough to run up front and think that they can block every move and you can’t.”

For Truex, it’s the 2016 Daytona 500 that he lost to Denny Hamlin by 0.10 seconds in the race’s closest finish ever. “To know we were that close — as close as anyone has ever been without winning it — it’s crazy,” Truex said with a laugh. “That makes me angry.”

Could he have done anything differently to win? Truex says yes. “I would have just ran into Denny and pushed him up the track. Do what everybody does to me!”

For Kyle Busch, there is disappointment but less agony because there are “only been two opportunities that I feel like slipped away: ’08. And ’16. I was fast in ’07. We should have finished third behind Harvick and Martin, but I crashed and destroyed the field coming to the checkered.

“Yeah, I could have won two of them. Not all that many when you look at it. We just keep trying, keep fighting. It definitely sets the motivation to try to get one.”

Martin Truex Jr. reveals final twist in Furniture Row Racing saga

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The story of Furniture Row Racing’s unfortunate demise was well told last season.

Lesser known is that it nearly happened three years earlier.

Martin Truex Jr. revealed Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day that the No. 78 was close to implosion after the 2015 season before securing the necessary funding that enabled the Denver-based team to last three more seasons.

“It wasn’t really reported on a lot that there was almost a chance we were going out of business before” the end of 2018, Truex said. “It wasn’t really talked about. It was kind of behind the scenes. And I had to go out and find sponsors. I had to do this and that to get paid.”

Truex’s primary sponsor for virtually the entirety of the 2014-15 seasons was Furniture Row, the company also owned by car owner Barney Visser.

In 2016, Bass Pro Shops (which followed Truex to Joe Gibbs Racing this year) and Auto Owners Insurance picked up nearly half the season, and a switch to Toyota also injected millions. In ’17, Furniture Row peaked in sponsorship (with the addition of Bass Pro and a second car for Erik Jones with 5-hour Energy).

Last year, Furniture Row was entirely off the No. 78 as a sponsor, and when the impending departure of 5-hour Energy left an eight-figure hole in the team’s budget, Visser shut down the team.

Truex since has replaced Daniel Suarez in the No. 19 Camry at JGR and said “there’s a lot less worry for me on the team side worrying about what their future is and how are things going.

“The stability of where I’m at now is clearly a lot different,” Truex said. “It’s there, which is important. It makes it easier to focus on racing and not have to worry about all the other stuff. I’m excited about it. It’s an awesome opportunity. Great organization and great people. At the same time, I have to get the job done. A lot of pressure on me to perform and hopefully I can deliver.”

Because JGR and Furniture Row had worked together as Toyota teams the past three seasons, Truex said the transition is relatively seamless compared with his past career shifts from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Michael Waltrip Racing and MWR to Furniture Row.

Crew chief Cole Pearn now can attend competition meetings at the JGR headquarters in Huntersville, North Carolina, that he once conferenced in remotely from Denver.

“I would say that it was a lot easier,” Truex said about the move. “A lot less unknowns. Less nervous about it just because I know things. I talk about simple things like I know what their brakes are like. I know what their throttle pedal feels like. I know what kind of steering they run. When I’ve switched teams before it’s like starting over a lot of times.

“When I went from DEI to MWR it was like completely starting over. All new people. All different parts and pieces. All new equipment. Everything felt different. The approach was different. That’s where you kind of have that anxiety of how’s this really going to be. I think it’s going to be good, but I don’t know. There’s so many questions when you switch teams like that. For this transition for me, it was a lot easier because we worked so closely together the past couple of years.

“We’ve essentially built our cars together. We used all the same stuff – parts and pieces, engines, you name it. I’m familiar with all that. I’m familiar with their process. The way they do things. The way they work together. The way their meetings are. You name it, it’s a comfortable change. For me, it’s been as easy as it’s ever been to switch teams like this year.”

Kyle Busch on contract status, 2019 rules, Gen 7 car, NASCAR leadership

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch has offered some of the most candid (and critical) comments on the 2019 rules package that will feature lower horsepower and likely tighter packs of cars.

His views from the recent test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway drew a slight rebuke from a NASCAR official. So naturally, there was an anticipation of what the 2015 Cup champion would have to say on Daytona 500 Media Day.

In a wide-ranging interview session Wednesday, Busch, who began the year ranked No. 1 in NASCAR on NBC’s new power rankings, addressed the rules, the Gen 7 car and the status of his contract (which expires after this season). Here are some of the highlights:

–On the status of his deal with Joe Gibbs Racing: “What year is this? How do you guys know this stuff? … We’re in discussions right now (with JGR). We’re talking. It’s all been agreed to; it’s just a matter of putting pen to paper. Yeah. We’re all good.”

–On the Gen 7 car proposed for 2021: “There’s a lot of unknowns. There’s a lot of ideas that everyone has thrown out there and what they want to see or like to see or what kind of things they’d like to have happen for Gen 7. I’ve even heard independent rear suspension being thrown around, that would be a complete overhaul of anything we’ve ever done in our sport. I’m not sure where all that lands or where they’re at the current moment. I think ’21 is a tight timeline to get all of it done by, and we’ll see how aggressive they get and what comes down the line.”

–On the necessity of the reduction to 550 horsepower, which NASCAR has said is aimed mostly at improving race quality at 1.5-mile tracks: “I certainly wish we didn’t have to deal with those things, but I do understand that back in the ‘70s or ‘80s, they were at 500 to 600 horsepower. Now we’re pushing 900, 950. I understand that we can go too fast. How fast is too fast, I don’t know. It’s all about throttle response and crispness of the engine.

“What we’ve already known and become accustomed to, now we’re taking a step back in time a little bit. I say all that because you have tapered spacers on trucks, and Xfinity and Cup cars. They’re all that way; we’re reducing horsepower across the board to slow these things down. The mechanical and aero grip of these things are so great, that at some tracks, you’re wide open. You’re able to cruise around by yourself and when you get in traffic, you’ve got the draft, which will play a role. There’s some interesting variables that are going to come out with this new package.”

–On whether restarts will be wilder this season: “Someone posted that video of that IROC race earlier this week on Twitter. I don’t think it’s going to be as great as that IROC race was, but you’ll see restarts like that for 5 laps and then separation. We’re all looking for just not the 6-second separation between first and second, which is too great of a distance to create any sort of excitement. If you can see someone in front of you within 3-4 lengths, then there might be an opportunity to get that guy eventually somehow, some way. We’ll have to see how all that transpires.”

–On whether Goodyear should make a softer tire: “Absolutely. I think so. They’re going to say we’re going through the corners just as fast if not faster than before so they can’t create a tire that’s softer because it’ll blister. The way I felt it in Vegas, we weren’t to the complete limit of the tire by ourselves. When we were running wide open, we’re under the tire. You’re not slipping the front or the rear. You’re just driving the car in a circle. So I think they can still make it softer to make it have falloff and have that driveable feel all of us would like to have for the race.”

–On how NASCAR drivers can deliver a message without a Drivers Council: “We’re just race car drivers. We don’t know anything. We just drive what we’re given to drive and what the rules and the rules are. Our team’s got to go to work and build around that and what they know how to make speed in our cars in order to go out there and beat the rest of the competition. That’s how I look at it. It’s not that it’s fallen on deaf ears. The problem is still creating something that’s viable for the fans to see excitement. When you have a guy that’s leading the race that’s out front by six seconds, it’s not exciting. I get and I understand where we’re going and what we’re doing. It’s just frustrating as a driver to know that’s what we’re doing and how we anticipate all the races kind of playing out at the 1.5-mile and above race tracks.”

–On new leadership in NASCAR: “I think with (NASCAR president Steve) Phelps and (CEO) Jim (France), I think Jim has done a tremendous job of at least being around. He’s always carrying a pen. He’s always carrying notebook. He’s always taking notes. He’s always listening to people, talking to people. He’s in the garage area. He’s down in the trenches. He’s figuring it all out and trying to make some moves for the betterment of the sport and that’s what we all want.

“We want somebody that’s involved, that’s into this as much as we’re all into this and care about all of this. I think that we’ve seen some positive out of all that. Now whether or not Jim is a proponent of this car or not, I don’t know. I think that it’s for all of us to take with an understanding that we’ve got to get better and we’ve got to put on a show and do a good job of creating excitement that’s on the race track as well as the race tracks being able to create excitement around the race tracks and have a good time for the people that come to the events – to not just sit out in 95-degree weather with the sun beating down on them and watch a race. There’s more to life than that these days.”

–On if 200 national series wins would compare to Richard Petty’s 200 wins: “No. Absolutely not because his number is obviously Cup wins and mine’s not. I feel as though I’m chasing Jeff Gordon or maybe even David Pearson. Maybe – I don’t know if I can get there. I like to think I can get there. I’m at – what is it 51 or something? I’m at 51 right now, so if I can get another 50 in the next 10 years, that would certainly be nice to go out with 100 Cup wins. … If I’m fortunate enough to be here 10 more years. I’m Tom Brady factoring right now. I’ve got to work on this fine frame to make sure it lasts that long.”

NASCAR ponders shorter races: 100-meter dash or marathon, what’s more popular?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With an overhaul of the 2020 schedule apparently in the works, there’s been much conjecture that the 10-month season could be reduced.

There also has been talk that NASCAR might shorten the length of its races.

Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be the first of seven events that are at least 500 miles in length. Moves in the past six years by Pocono Raceway and Auto Club Speedway to cut 100 miles off their races have been well received, often resulting in heightened tension.

Denny Hamlin said it’s an idea that has merit as NASCAR seeks to broaden its youth audience in an era of shorter attention spans.

“I don’t know really the analytics of it (and) what fans want to see,” Hamlin said Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day. “But I know that when you tune into the Olympics, the most popular event is the 100-meter dash. It’s not the 25-mile marathon. Maybe there’s something to be said about that.”

Hamlin, a former member of the NASCAR Drivers Council who has the ear of many executives, said even if races aren’t compacted, he’s fairly certain the season will end earlier than the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

“I think that certainly it could be shorter,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “I don’t know that it’s shorter as in races, but the length in time in the calendar year, it could be shortened up for sure. It’s not as easy making those changes as what we would all like for it to be because of all the stakeholders and what not. I think in the next few years, you’ll probably see some of that.

“You always feel it about September or October that this is a very long season.”

It’s an issue that likely would be discussed by the Drivers Council, whose future seems uncertain entering its fifth year. Drivers typically have voted to determine who sits on the panel by Speedweeks, but Hamlin said nothing has been announced, and he’s “indifferent on it, to be honest with you” because he is in regular communication with NASCAR leadership.

“I think there’s value to (the Drivers Council),” said Hamlin, who played a major role in its formation. “Driver feedback is very crucial to putting on good racing.

“I do think with the changing of the guard as far as management with Jim France, you’re likely to see him listen to the drivers more so then what’s been in the past even though you had the meetings and had the agenda. Sometimes it just kinds of fall on deaf ears.

“Are they really going to make that change or is their mind already made up on it? The owners have seen that changes are coming, and changes have been made in the last year or so quicker than what has in the past. Certainly, if there is any time for the Drivers Council, this is will be the right time because you have the right people to listen.”

The atmosphere definitely has changed since nearly six years ago when Hamlin was fined $25,000 for “criticizing” the Gen 6 car in comments that were innocuous.

“I should get my money back,” Hamlin said Wednesday with a laugh. “That’s BS. I didn’t hardly say anything other than, ‘This car doesn’t drive like the other car.’ Anyway, as I digress, they owe me a beer or two.

“I would say it is tough. I think (NASCAR executives) appreciate the one-on-one conversations if you do have something negative to say. They do not like it in the media because they think that ultimately anything we say the bulk of fans will agree with regardless of it has any basis or not. They feel like it puts a little bit behind any time you’re out there, and you’re being openly negative about it. Instead, let it shake out on the race track and let the fans decide for themselves.”